How risky is pardoning? Not as risky as committing uninformed journalism

An AP story about the perils of pardoning, picked up by newspapers and media outlets across the country, manages to convey three pieces of misinformation in its very first sentence.  Riffing off a recent high profile pardon application, it begins like this:  “Mark Wahlberg’s plea for a pardon has focused fresh attention on excusing criminal acts – something governors rarely do because it’s so politically risky.”

But pardons do not “excuse” crimes, they forgive them; governors have been pardoning more and more generously in recent years; and pardoning, like any other government program involving personal participation by a high profile elected official, is generally not risky if done in a responsible manner with good staff support and without apology.

The AP article (Steve LeBlanc, “Wahlberg Plea Underscores Risk of Issuing Pardons”) supports its tired “politically risky” thesis with three examples from the last twenty years of governors’ pardons gone bad: two involve bad staffing, and the third dubious causality.  (Mr. LeBlanc could have found plenty more examples of poor pardon staffing resulting in executive embarrassment in the recent annals of presidential pardoning.)

The article does not mention that Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states whose governors have stubbornly refused to use their beneficent executive power even in the most sympathetic cases.  It fails to see any irony in Governor Patrick’s delay in acting on expanded criteria for issuing pardons he announced almost a year ago.  It also does not mention that pardoning has been alive and well for some time in more than a dozen states, and has enjoyed a renaissance under current governors in Illinois and California.

While former Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich is no longer the only responsible living pardoner in the country, as this writer once proposed, he certainly has the right idea about pardon being “part of the job” for any governor.  Ehrlich has embarked on a commendable campaign to educate governors to this idea.  It would be nice if more members of the working press were interested in encouraging responsible executive action instead of using misinformation to discourage it.  At least the editorial pages seem to have figured it out.

Margaret Love

Margaret Love is CCRC's Executive Director. A former U.S. Pardon Attorney, she represents applicants for executive clemency in her private practice in Washington, D.C.. She is lead co-author of Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction: Law, Policy, and Practice (4th ed. 2021), and served as an advisor to the ALI Model Penal Code: Sentencing.

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